Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Earthquake Hits Tonga...Tongans Don't Care....

This article appeared in the Courier Express and Main Line Life.

As news of the 7.8-calibur earthquake that hit Tonga shook the Western news world, we barely felt an aftershock in Vava’u. Perhaps all of our emotions were spent during the 90-second “mofuike” (mo-fu-ee-kay).

At 2 am on Thursday, May 4th—Crown Prince Tupou To’a’s birthday, a national holiday—I laid down to sleep after celebrating my day off by drinking kava at a fundraiser for a high school in the remote Tongan island of Niuatoputapu.

A little more than two hours later, I awoke from my couch to a rumble that I couldn’t explain as the kava disagreeing with my stomach. The room trembled. My dog, Moa, jumped to her feet and looked at me with a hint of confusion in her eyes (well, more so than normal, anyway). I knew it was an earthquake.

I had a flashback to a few months before, when Tongan friends were visiting and alerted me to a rumble. The ten-second earthquake was slight, but still exhilarating to an East Coast boy.
Back in real-time, the quake raged on past the 30-second mark. It felt as though my house would dance down the street. You could hear my tables and cupboard rattling as the earth vibrated through them.

40-seconds: Moa gave me one last glance, realized that I was of no help, and dove through her doggy door to find safety outdoors.

50-seconds: The electricity switched off. My table tipped, sending books, magazines, and a wind-up fishing game crashing to the floor.

60-seconds: Stop drop and roll? Run outside? Climb under a table? What does one do to be safe during an earthquake? Panicky, I came up blank. I should have followed Moa.

70-seconds: I started to wonder what happens in a large earthquake. Did the ground open up in Frisco? Yikes. I simply continued to lay on my couch.

80-seconds: Still shaking. But then, the mofuike slowed to a stop. I collected myself. My house was intact, as far as I could tell in the pitch black. I scrambled to my feet and felt around for a flashlight. Each of the three I own were out of batteries, of course. Clumsily, I put in new batteries and flashed around my house. Spices that toppled from my fridge top, cupboards opened, pictures frames knocked face down, but no real damage.

Venturing outside, I made my way around the dark road, expecting to see toppled houses and destruction. Yet, everything was as it should have been at 4:30 am—calm.

Visiting my neighbors, we all agreed that it was a large, frightening earthquake. After five minutes, it was back to normal conversation. Unreal: a few minutes before, I thought my house would fall through a crack in the Earth, and now it was barely even fodder for conversation. I visited another neighbor, but they’ve already gone back to sleep. With a shrug of my shoulders, I made my way back to my (intact) abode. One more oddity: there was no sign of Moa.

I woke up at 9 am to a member of my youth group calling me to start work on our video store, our partner project with the readers of the Courier Express. Rolling over, hours after she left, I saw that Moa had just returned. I was off to work.

With crowbar and hammer in hand, we dismantled the former town hall kitchen, making room to build shelves for our new video store. Running out of patience because no one mentioned the earthquake, I finally brought it up. Again, we agreed that it was big, and a little disconcerting, but my companions were bored with the topic and quickly got back to tearing apart the interior.

At lunch time, we piled in a truck and were driving towards town when my Peace Corps Supervisor ‘Alaipuke ‘Esau pulled us over. Finally confirmation that it was a big deal. ‘Alaipuke informed me that it registered 7.8 on the Richter Scale. To put this into perspective, the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco measured 6.9 on the Richter Scale, caused 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries and over $6 billion in property damage. In Tonga’s earthquake, estimated by some organizations as a full point stronger than the Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco, there were no deaths, two reported injuries and a minor amount of structural damage in the Ha’apai Island Group.

We parted ways, my supervisor to check on the other volunteers, and us, to fill our stomachs. Things were slow in town, only because of the national holiday. However, not even the Crown Prince’s birthday, let alone a silly earthquake, could close the Vava’u Curry Stand: curry-flavored mutton flaps over boiled cassava. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it!

Putting in our order, two Peace Corps volunteers approached and frantically told me that Tonga had made world news headlines with the earthquake. Realizing that I could very well have two worried parents in DuBois, I called home. Only then did I learn of the tsunami warning that never materialized due to a power failure.

Considering the disastrous December 2004 tsunami that struck in the Indian Ocean, this certainly warranted the extensive media coverage it received. However, it caused no outrage in Tonga, the place where the mistake had the potential to turn into tragedy.

Days later, in reply to my email describing the earthquake, Gian Rodriguez, a friend who is employed as the Assistant Director of Communications for the Golf Association of Philadelphia, advised that there were very few animal deaths in the tsunami. They fled to higher ground. He closed with some sound advice: “Next time, don’t just lay there, follow your dog!” Maybe Moa’s look—that I judged as confused—was simply out of frustration that her Dad wouldn’t accompany her on the journey to safety.

As the day continued on, cruising the Vava’u back roads, a gentleman from our village flagged us down from the roadside. He needed our assistance in carrying a pig carcass to Makave. The animal met an early fate for wandering into his plantation. C’mon, it was eating his root crops. Earthquake or not, Thursday, May 4th was just another day in Tonga.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ako Lesoni

We held two weeks of hours-long practices to travel to the village of Longomapu to put on a series of short religious-themed plays for the people of that village. A lot of hand-dancing ‘a la Napoleon Dynamite’s “happy hands club.” That is huge here in Tonga. I’m an equally poor hand and foot dancer.

I appeared in the “Jesus Boat” skit in which we pretend to row a boat while sitting on the floor. Jesus is in our boat and he serenades us when we ask him to help us b/c we are weak with out him.

In another skit, my wife, child and I are planning on boarding a boat to Heaven. The catch is, my daughter figuratively didn’t prepare for this journey, so misses the ride. In the end scene, my wife cries at seeing our daughter left behind.

In my critically acclaimed performance, I hold my hand above my eyes to shield the sun and look out into the crowd for my untimely abscent daughter. I also grab little girls and spin them around, wearing a face of disappointment when I find that they are not my lil gal.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Kava Culture

kava (piper methysticum): 1 a pepper species that is ubiquitous in the South
Pacific; 2 a liquid strained from the ground root of the kava plant, when
consumed causes a mouth-numbing and mild tranquilizing affect. 3 the lifeblood
of the Kingdom of Tonga.

Where there is life in Tonga’s 171 sparsely populated islands, there is kava. From bestowing a royal title, to starting a small business to cracking a lewd joke at a Philadelphian Peace Corps Volunteer, kava is there.

The powdered root of the kava plant is poured into a sifter that is submerged in a drum of water. Strained like a giant tea bag, the water turns into a murky brown fluid packed with 12 to 14 chemicals of an alkaloid nature.

Sitting cross-legged, I peer out over my 30th kava-filled half-coconut shell, trying to delay the inevitable next round. I see a circle of 15 men—aged 18 to 80—some involved in serious conversations, others—the lucky ones—putting on their best face to talk to the toua (woman who serves kava), most, making fun of that person’s attempt at flirtation, all while being serenaded with traditional Tongan music accompanied by guitar and ukulele.

Across the outdoor patio, two to three other “kava circles,” are formed of the same dynamic. Like I do two nights each week, I drink that cup—the kava that broke the palangi’s back, if you will—and haziness sets over my mind, with a wobble to my legs.
The next morning, when I’m overcome with lethargy until noon—the dreaded kava hangover—I reflect on Tonga’s “kava culture,” and why two days later, I’ll rejoin it.
Kava Philanthropy: kava groups are the primary fundraiser in Tonga. At least two nights each week, my village of Makave will hold a kava fundraiser, with beneficiaries ranging from the Makave Youth Group’s partner project with Main Line Life, Tapes for Tonga, to paying school fees for children with financial needs, to helping pay a villager’s medical expenses.

Kava Conversation: kava circles are also a chance to study the language. At the beginning of my service, four hours was a long time to sit in a state of cluelessness. However, I learned as I listened. As my language skills improved, I was able to ascertain when laughs were made at my expense. Now 10-months into my service, I’m able to go on the offensive, boasting an arsenal of Tongan kava jokes.

Kava Culture: When not poking fun at one another, my Tongan friends describe the culture and what it was like for them growing up. Think of the old “walking 10-miles barefoot through snow to school” story. Forget about the snow, but the Tongan version does include bare feet.

Kava Formality: kava is an opportunity to see the formality of Tongan life. At a kava party last fall, I sat with 10 members of the Makave Youth Group, who donned shorts and tank tops. Our village noble Tu’i ‘Afitu (formerly Lolo Mana’ia, the eldest son of the late Tu’i ‘Afitu) appeared in the door. There followed a frenzy of activity: men changing into formal Tongan clothing, youth running outdoors to clean the noble’s kava cup, and all returning to rearrange the circle—with the noble at the head of the circle, surrounded by his matāpules (talking chiefs) and then individuals according to rank, with the lowest man serving the kava. No where is Tongan hierarchy more evident than in a kava circle.

Kava “Knighting”: kava is to Tonga as the sword is to Great Britain, the bearer of titles. Before Lolo Mana’ia officially became Tu’i ‘Afitu, he drank one cup of kava as a symbol of his commitment to being a noble. The ceremony was formal, conducted outdoors in front of hundreds of our fellow Tongans. Filled with Tongan pomp and circumstance, dozens of pigs were sacrificed and huge underground ovens were dug to prepare food. The ancient ceremony included a dramatic performance about the making of kava from plant to powder to liquid.

In a similar ritual on the final day of mourning for the late noble, I followed in Lolo Mana’ia’s footsteps, shedding my Tongan name “Sosifa,” for the matāpule title “ ‘Afitu,” with a cup of Tonga’s be-all-end-all.

Kava has become an oxymoron to me. A kava haze is followed by language and cultural understanding; a morning kava hangover, followed by the bestowing of a title in the afternoon. There’s much to be gained through drinking kava, yet productivity to be lost in the lethargy of the morn. Perhaps as a solution, we can “Tonga-fy” the old adage: after every two cups forward, we should give one cup back…

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Rain (with permission from Prince)

This article appeared in the Courier Express and Main Line Times...

April Showers-DuBois, Pennsylvania, you’ve got nothing on the Kingdom of Tonga’s wet season. I write this on a deservedly beautiful, sunny, “living in tropical paradise” day—one that Tonga earned for enduring four weeks of rain.

Not to imply that this was all-day, every-day rain. Some days provided a constant mist, as though we were striding through a sprinkler system. On others, we experienced intermittent cloudiness and intense downpours. The clouds get it out of their system in a fury of precipitation. One night, during such a downpour, I was playing volleyball with a group from my village. The pace of the game actually intensified during the rain.

Tongans’ perspective towards rain is completely different than mine. During downpours, I have flashbacks to standing in a cold April storm at Showers Field (how appropriate?) during baseball practice, cursing every drop. I think of the Saturdays, when I wouldn’t leave my house in fear of the harsh, icy, precipitation.

In Tonga, house doors fly open at the first drop of rain, like a DuBois adolescent during the season’s first snow storm. Many run to the shore to swim. I’m in constant debate with my Tongan friends over the best time to swim. I’m called crazy for taking to the waters when the sun is high in the sky. That’s as ridiculous to them as swimming in the rain is to us.
People hide from the sun more than they hide from the rain. In Tonga, one sees more umbrellas on a sunny day than on a rainy one, a shield for the year-long sunlight that comes with the package of being this close to the equator.

Popular “Rainy Day Activities,” could fill volumes, not books. When it’s raining hard enough, Tongans “faka uha,” shower outside: soap, shampoo and all.

In Tonga, it’s good to rain on someone’s parade. For one, the rain cools things down and provides brief relief from the humidity that drapes over us like San Francisco fog.
More importantly, Tongans depend on the rain for their health. Rain is our drinking water. Water doesn’t always come out of the spicket in Tonga. For some, there is no running water, for myself and others, tap water is to be used for washing, only. Chalky with a large content of calcium, it’s basically undrinkable.

All Tongan drinking water comes from sima vais, 500-gallon cement water tanks. During rain storms, water runs off tin roofs, through the gutter system and into pipes that feed into the sima vai. If it doesn’t rain, I drink chalky water. But, people who live on outer islands just don’t drink.
In an agriculture-based society, draughts turn into food shortages. In Tonga, each adult male is awarded four acres of land by the government. Many work their plots as subsistence farmers. Because of this, Tonga is an anomaly in the developing world. Its lack of wealth is certainly not followed by a lack in weight. As a group, Tongans have the largest body mass index in the world. Heavy rain and this government program add up to calories. This all changes when the rain ceases to fall. When harvests go bad, Tongans’ lack of income becomes a factor. Needless to say, after January and February, none will face this scenario for quite some time.
From my short time here, I’ve taken a Tongan approach to rain. One could say that I have a new appreciation for precipitation. When our first April shower hits, you’ll find my soapy face, staring up at the sky, and possibly singing a song in my great, village-sized shower...and it won’t be “Rain, Rain, Go Away.”

Parallel to the backwards way in which Tongans view precipitation, the phrase “when it rains, it pours” has taken on a new light to me. The outpouring of support from the readers of the Courier Express has been moving. When passing on reports of the movie/school/sport supply drive—at Kohlepps True Value Hardware and Lakeside United Methodist Church, given by Carol Smith, my aunt, at Owens-Illinois, by John Manfredo, my dad, and at the DuBois Area High School, by instructors Barry Gallagher and Cindy Nichols—I’m greeted with high fives...even in Tonga, a universal expression of excitement.

The villagers of Makave were perhaps more excited that your readers took such an interest in their culture. The January 1st issue of the Courier Express was poured over by nearly every member of the kava circle at a February fundraiser. The village noble, Tu’i ‘Afitu has taken the paper to be laminated and displayed in his home.

With the news of incoming videos, project planning has gotten underway. The Vava’u Youth Congress, where I serve as management supervisor, is offering a free business workshop in mid-April. Members of the Makave youth group will be in attendance to learn business skills and to write a business plan for our falefilimi.

This business plan will be our map to constructing shelves for the store, developing a movie organization and bookkeeping system, and marketing our new venture to Makave and the surrounding villages. We plan to begin the store from Makave’s town hall. After raising money from video rentals and kava fundraisers, we will construct a new store, on land donated to us by Tu’i ‘Afitu.

Without the help of the DuBois community, this project wouldn’t have been possible. For that, the Makave youth group is indebted to the people of DuBois’ generosity. Because we view you as partners in this project, we will continue to write about our advancements, challenges and successes in our experiment in business.

Malo lahi ‘aupito, kauDuBois, ngaue fakataha mo mautolu. Thank you very much, people of DuBois, for working together with us in Tonga.

Friday, March 03, 2006

A Fish's Nightmare....

I’m a fish’s nightmare. This should not be confused with me being a fish’s “worst” nightmare. The way I think, a worst nightmare would have to do with death—that of the fish, or its close friends or family.

I, am a nightmare. I’m this big land creature—goggles, flippers and snorkel making me look monster-esque—chasing you with a sharp metal object and the intent to kill. Scary shit. However, with me, it ends with intentions. I couldn’t hit a 20-pound tuna that has broken fins. Therefore, I’m a mere nightmare.

Just returned from a camping outing. Good times. Fell in love with my new hammock. I will never again be without one. I found solace in this new toy as I returned, dejected and fishless from the ocean.

This was our second time out since Tessa was killed. The first time, we barely got 20 feet into the water without paranoia setting in. It was totally joyless, constantly, irrationally, looking over our shoulders. There have only been 3 shark attacks in the past 20 years in death. Still, this hit a little close to home.

This past weekend, we got some of our courage back. I think that we’ll be a little apprehensive for now on, but this time, I was able to enjoy myself. Swam along some beautiful reef, saw (yes, emphasis on saw) some beautiful fish. Schools of hundreds of fish will swim right in front of your face when you’re in the water. Parrot fish—yes, their faces and colors are reminiscent of parrots—swim at the ocean bottom. Electric blue fish darting in and out of holes in the coral. It’s like being that little scuba dude who so often can be found in individual’s fish tanks.

On our return boat ride into Neiafu, we saw a big ole sting ray breach the water, catch about five feet, and splash back into the harbor. Pretty unreal....more so b/c I didn’t know that sting rays could do that. Sting rays are big, black, square-shaped fish, with the corner of a square being the fish’s face. a long tail—the stinger—protrudes from it’s backend.

I was toting a huge backpack, bag with snorkel and spear stuff and a grill top, a little worried about catching a ride b/c Neiafu is a ghost town on Sundays. all biz’s are closed and people generally just go to church, rest and eat. so, i march to the street and hear my neighbor—the fire chief—yell my name from the fire station.

This is just ridiculous. All the firefighters in Vava’u do is drink kava. they have big kava fundraisers at the freaking fire station. granted, it’s not like downing beers, but it still makes you stumble. and my guess is that firemen wouldnt want to be wobbly during a fire. i guess they could pee out the flames—that being the other, only effect of kava.

i digress: sinamoni calls me over and offers me a ride...a god send. on the way back, i learn that a high school kid from my village drowned on saturday. was out fishing with his friends and got sucked out by a rip tide. poor bugger. Ocean hasn’t been friendly this year.

Just more reinforcement for our ocean rules....stay near the reef, don’t go into deep water, never swim and dusk and dawn, and never, never swim alone.

Not sure how to change the subject from that, so I’ll just do it:

I guess a lot has been going on here. Since Tessa died, a married couple quit and another girl was removed from service. Six from the new group were stationed we’re down to two.

Also, Negaya, the Australian volunteer who acts as management supervisor at the Vava’u Youth Congress, is ending her service next week. So, we’re getting a big people shake up.

Brighter news, I’m taking over for Negaya here, with the goal of getting a grant to fund the salary of a Tongan manager who will work alongside me until I leave, and then take over in full capacity as manager.

Our youth group newsletter is going to press on Tuesday. a few of our tongan volunteers were ACE reporters. Should be a good communication devise. a big hindrance to our effectiveness has been communication. youth groups don’t know what we offer. we hope to use the newsletter for that purpose. It will be a free way to announce youth group fundraisers and advertise youth business. we’re also highlighting one youth group/issue—featuring a youth group that just completed a successful project....will be informative for youth groups working on similar projects, and inspirational to others who want to follow in the path of success.

the cultural entertainment program is still in its beginning stages—our tongan staff is working to form a committee to lay out our action plan.

back in the village all is going well. I’ve been participating in the tri-village area choir. it’s pretty sweet. it’s a dude choir and seriously, nearly the whole male population of the three villages participate, and love it. these huge tongan dudes just love to sing. and they are good at it—booming voices. we sing the scale...Tonga-fied. the scale is translated to tongan numbers: 3-tolu, 4-fa, 5-nima, 6-ono, 7-fitu, 8-valu, 9-hiva, but with shortened versions of the, fa, ni, o, tu, va, hi. the numbers are listed on the sheet music and you just sing along. sounds easy enough. but, singing from:

3,4,7,9,5,3,6,8,5,9 ain’t easy at the pace we’re required. to,fa,tu,hi,ni,to,o,va,ni,hi. anyway....after practices: mondays and wednesdays, we feast, of course. it’s unreal how much food the villages prepare. they serve us in boxes that are used to carry a case of pop (for the record, it’s Sota in Tonga). fried fish, root crops, lu, shell fish, chicken, sausage.....all this at 10 at night. it’s great.

it’s like all other tongan feasts in that throughout the feast, people stand and give speeches. usually, i’ll speak on all these occasions, but this time, i’d held off for the first five or six practices. but, one night in the neighboring village, i knew it was time. I stood and thanked the gentlemen from okoa and utui for coming and singing so beautifully, b/c we need them to overpower the men from Makave (my village) who sing awful. UPROARIOUS LAUGHTER. I continued to thank the women for making the food and noted that the food, of course, is the most important part of practice and went on to say that i’m going to take my extra food home, put it in my fridge and reheat it for dinner the next night. LAUGTHER AND ROUND OF APPLAUSE.

Tongans love corny humor...I dont know if I can ever leave this place. it’s done wonders for a kid who is the usually the only one to laugh at his own jokes. anytime you poke fun and it’s remotely amusing, tongans will laugh at it for five minutes and tell stories about the joke for weeks to come.

tongans love to make fun of people for going to events just for the food. crashing weddings and funerals is frequent and expected. people come for the food. they love to make fun of people for doing this, though. every event I attend, at least one guy will try to be funny and accuse me of only coming for the food (ok, so it is a big motivator). a few weeks ago, i was chatting with a few gals from the village who started talking about a funeral in a village near Neiafu. they got all excited talking about going to it. i asked if they were family or just going for the food. they got a chuckle and noted that i know tongans well.

so, they got a kick when I flat-out told the woman that the food was what brought us there. They also find it completely odd that I will keep leftovers in my fridge. refrigeration is a new thing here, so tongans are still dominated by the thinking that food must be consumed immediately. if you can’t finish, you give it away to someone who will. so, they just laugh their heads off when they ask me what i ate for dinner (that, where are you going, what are you doing later, and it’s hot, isn’t it are everyday questions) and i respond that i heated up last night’s food. they warn me that it will make me sick and demand that next time, i get rid of the food and just go to their house to eat fresh, hot food.

so, when i got sick last weekend, of course, reheating food was the cause. the next day, i was delivered food from the bush and had to fend off dinner invites like i was swiping flies from my face.

well, this is getting long, so I’ll close with some funny Tongan names, translated to English: John Airplane, John Loves Animals, Lemon, Fraction, Computer, Coconut, Disneyland, Magazine, Apple, Cinnamon, Diamond, Water Tank, and my favorite, Telephone—who works as a receptionist. It’s like naming a guy jeeves or a girl,’re mapping out their destiny.

HOpe all is well at home. Miss ya’all and think of ya’all often.


Sunday, February 12, 2006

Mourning the Death of Tessa Horan

Hey ya’all. Somber email coming from Tonga. Tessa Horan, a volunteer from the new group who had just moved to Tu’anuku in Vava’u two weeks ago, was killed in a shark attack. She was 24 and from New Mexico. She was to be a teacher at a local primary school and work on projects with the youth in her village.

Her evening routine was to play soccer on the beach with the guys from her village and afterwards to go swimming. Last Wednesday, February 1, she and a few guys went out swimming further than normal. They were swimming towards the Pulapaki, a big freight/passenger ship that runs inter-island routes, when she was attacked.

The guy closest to her bravely answered her cries for help and tried to hold her and swim to shore. Men on the shore rode to them in a canoe but by the time they got to them, she had passed. The shark only bit her once, in the thigh, but took her leg. She died of blood loss.

We were all notified and met at the hospital. There, we had a church service led by her village. The next day, we met at 5 am for prayer services that ran through 1 pm. The village did all the traditional tongan funeral preparations: a traditional kava ceremony the night of her death; decorated the morgue and patio at the hospital in flowers, tapa and woven mats; running prayer services; and decorating the funeral truck in tapa, mats, and black and purple.

When the time came, we placed Tessa in the back of the truck and rode with her, leading a caravan of 20 vehicles. as we approached the airport, driving through hard hard pouring rain, we saw youth from her village—dressed in black and their finest ta’ovala mats—sitting along both sides of the road, forming a tunnel for us to move through. That was by far the most moving moment of the ceremony. Then, Tessa’s body was flown to Tongatapu.

From Thursday night through Tuesday, prayer services were held at the morgue. People were there at all times, singing, drinking kava, praying. Thousands of Tongans were there to pay their respects.

The new group of volunteers—those who had just spent three months with Tessa during training—flew to Tonga on Friday morning.

Us older folks stayed in Vava’u. That friday, we went to a kava fundraiser in Tessa’s village. She has some great guys in her village. They told about how Tessa would always go with them to their farm plots and try all the weird Tongan fruits that we’ve never heard of in the US. They went to her house at all hours of the day and night to talk and she always welcomed them, many times cooking for them. After only two weeks, they viewed her as a true member of their village.

That Sunday, peace corps called and said that they were going to fly us to the capital on Monday. The volunteers from her group organized a bonfire at a local beach resort and told stories about Tessa.

The next day they held the funeral mass and all of Peace Corps went to the airport to see her off, as she was flown to New Mexico shortly after midnight, Wednesday morning.

3 volunteers from her group have decided to end their service and return to the states. I can only imagine what they are going through---only two weeks into the difficult adjustment to village life and they were faced with this, without close friends and family to help them cope.

Her family has set up a Web site dedicated to Tessa and has already raised more than $10K towards projects in Tu’anuku. Check it out here:

Unfortunately, I didnt get a chance to know Tessa well. We had a few conversations during their training, but I had only seen her once since she’d moved here. But, we all did know her enough that we unanimously had been hoping that she would be assigned to Vava’u.

Thanks for taking the time to read this and for checking out the Web site that I sent.

I hope that all is well at home.


Sunday, December 25, 2005

Blue Christmas

Another Christmas has come and gone…for many of you. I’m still waiting for Kris Kringle, Rudolf and Jack Frost to come ho-ho-ho-ing, glowing and tap-tap-tapping at my window.

It was appropriate that the holiday fell on the Sabbath, because Christmas is just another Sunday in the Kingdom of Tonga. Of course, the green and red flicker of holiday lights can be seen in one or two homes and a gift is exchanged here and there, but for the most part, the celebration of Christmas is relegated to the halls of church.

Having flashbacks to Linus’ speech on “what Christmas is all about,” in A Charlie Brown Christmas, I thought that maybe the Tongans had it right. So, instead of waking up to Christmas cookies and coffee with mom as we waited for the rest of the family to crawl out of bed, I arose and helped my neighbor to prepare the underground oven, which I do every Sunday. Then, it was off to church, where attendance was less than the normal capacity crowd in this Christian nation. Perhaps the heat kept them in their homes, as the cold and snow may have done to families in Pennsylvania.

After church, we indulged in our Sunday feast of lu—meat and coconut cream wrapped in taro (a spinach-type leaf)—and root crops. After eating, my Tongan dinner partners fell into their Sunday routine: resting before and after the 4 pm church service. I departed to spend the second half of my holiday with fellow volunteers. Christmas movies and a small gift exchange gave us a hint of our Western rituals, but as I laid down that night, listening to Elvis’ “Blue Christmas,” I pondered over questions like “is it worse to receive coal in one’s stocking, or no stocking at all?” and “what great wrong did I commit that despite joining Peace Corps, I ended up on Santa’s ‘naughty list’?”

Many contend that Christmas has lost its meaning in the lights, glitter and gifts of the season. We’re bombarded with Christmas music, Christmas sales, Christmas lights, Christmas trees and Christmas cookies. But, where’s Christmas Jesus? He spends his birthday in Tonga.
Risking coming off as heretical, I’ll argue with “the reason for the season.” Our diverse nation is comprised of individuals with different religious beliefs, denominations and varying levels of faith and importance placed on the spiritual. Yet, even for many of the faithless, Christmas is still a special time. That’s because a greater meaning of the holiday lies within music, the gift giving, the lights, trees and decoration. Their bonding powers on families have transcended the holiday from the religious. It is too magical a time to be thus confined.

Like the growing snowball that rolls down hills in Pennsylvania winter, the day has evolved into a season and has become too large for even the most towering basilica.

For those that decry that it’s a “Hallmark Holiday,” then praise be to Hallmark. Bring me the pomp and circumstance, fore within that is the magic that excites me each December. It warms me enough to tolerate the cold and snow. It inspires my giddiness on Christmas Eve. It causes the tickle in my stomach that calls me from bed at 6 am each Christmas morning. Its allure draws my family and friends home from places far and wide, from Florida to Chicago.

To call this a religious holiday is a misnomer. It’s mystical in its effects.

Economically, Tonga is classified as a developing nation. After my Tongan Christmas, I can confirm that the same status applies to their holiday celebration. Perhaps Rudolf’s nose can show them the way.